Yes, we know you’ve leveled up in domestic god/dess status by nurturing your sourdough starter and rocking that weekly CSA box loaded with seasonal fruits and veggies. We’ve seen the photos.
But with colder months on the way and threats of a Covid-19 spike looming large, D.C. restaurateurs are hoping you’ll occasionally consider putting down the chef’s knife to order takeout from your favorite pre-pandemic dinner spot. This simple act could help save an industry on the brink – an industry that encompassed nearly 2,500 restaurants, generated roughly $400 million annually in sales tax to the District and employed around 65,200 before the pandemic, according to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW).
“At this point, I believe that we will make it through, all of my places,” says veteran restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, co-owner of Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring and Little Coco’s, El Chucho and Bar Charley in D.C. “Now, what that means is a little bit hard for me to know. This does not mean that we are breaking even or making money.”
Later, she added via text, “We feel strongly enough about our business that we want to try, but we may be crippled by debt next year and beyond in a way which may compromise our eventual survival.”
Greenbaum expressed gratitude toward understanding landlords and RAMW for supporting restaurants through this unimaginable time and to the city for supplying much-needed grants and implementing an efficient permitting process for outdoor spaces that are now a lifeline for those hoping to make it through the lean months.
“The whole thing of the ‘streateries’ going through December of next year is a huge win for restaurants,” she says of the city council’s extension of streatery allowances through the end of 2021. “I’m very proud of D.C. for doing something so enterprising and so proactive. It could really be a way that restaurants could recover losses from either being closed or mostly closed during the winter.”
Carey Tang, who co-owns Rooster & Owl on 14th Street Northwest with her husband, Chef Yuan Tang, echoes Greenbaum’s praises of the city, particularly three rounds of grants including one specifically designed to help restaurants offset the costs of getting winter-friendly outdoor spaces up and running.
“Heaters are very expensive, the maintenance of heaters is expensive, marketing expenses around that – any help we can get toward that area is helpful,” she says.
The Tangs, who are expecting their second child this fall, have ordered branded blankets that they will sell to chilly diners for $50; have changed their dishware to a type that holds heat longer; and worked diligently to find the most effective and safe heaters available. She also cites the easier permitting process as a huge relief.
“We’ve had a very positive experience with expanding our patio. The adaptations to the permit and approval process to operate outside safely and within their parameters have also been really positive for us,” Carey Tang says of the city’s creative workarounds for a notoriously onerous process. “That really enabled us to be swift and to open service outside as soon as possible.”
Shawn Townsend, director of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, says they are doing the best they can – despite being left out of the federal CARES Act relief offered to states – to protect D.C.’s beloved restaurants, which he notes are more than 90 percent locally owned.
“As we assess the District’s finances, we’re constantly thinking of ways to provide relief,” he says. “We have a whole outdoor relief package that includes the grant program, but it also includes us pushing the new insurance requirements to January 2022; it also includes waiving propane and tent permit fees so that businesses don’t have to worry about spending that money on permits.”
Whether or not it’s enough remains to be seen, but Townsend says there are signs that the relief efforts are making an impact.
“We’ve heard feedback from businesses acknowledging that if it weren’t for these types of relief being offered that they might have considered closing,” he says.
In addition, he points to a tweet from El Rey, which had planned to close after Halloween but decided to stay open due to a wellspring of support from fans. The U Street Northwest bar owned by Ian and Eric Hilton also tweeted its thanks for the grant: “A big shoutout to @MayorBowser & @dcmonc for the Streatery Winter Ready Grant. Way to support us small businesses and help us keep the fight going! #DCHope”
“We don’t want to take the credit for keeping the business open, but we will take the credit for providing that relief to help them stay open,” Townsend says.
Other restaurants have not been so lucky, with RAMW reporting that 83 District-based restaurants have closed in 2020.
So, what can you do to help your favorite restaurants see the other side of this pandemic? Order takeout as often as possible, say restaurateurs like Chef Joancarlo Parkhurst, who opened his Puerto Rican restaurant La Famosa in Navy Yard this September.
“Just keep us in the rotation,” he says of all small restaurants, not just La Famosa. “We obviously understand that you can’t dine with us every night of the week, but if you can make it out to your local eatery once or twice a month, if it’s within your budget, it would really help a lot of places out.”
He says his “fine casual” business model turned out to be ideal for opening during a pandemic, because they always expected to have strong carryout sales. But he certainly didn’t expect to keep his patio open during winter. He’s currently looking into a canopy system, investigating heating and partition options, and planning to serve cozy dishes and drinks like stews and coquito, the Puerto Rican answer to eggnog, on a patio that seats nearly 40 socially distanced diners.
At the same time, he’s banking on restaurants providing a dose of much-needed escapism for D.C. residents during the cold, dark months ahead.
“You can try things that you typically wouldn’t make at home, take joy in being able to submerge yourself in a different culture and a different food, whether it be really badass Filipino food or your local Italian restaurant,” Parkhurst says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s like your staycation right there. You’re able to break out of your four walls, in that regard.”
Learn about the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture at here and follow @dcmonc on Instagram. Find more information on Greenbaum, Tang and Parkhurst and their restaurants below, including their Instagram handles.
Bar Charley: 1825 18th St. NW, DC; www.barcharley.com; @barcharley
El Chucho: 3313 11th St. NW, DC; www.elchuchodc.com; @elchuchodc
La Famosa: 1300 4th St. SE, DC; www.eatlafamosa.com; @eatlafamosa
Little Coco’s: 3907 14th St. NW, DC; www.littlecocos.com; @littlecocosdc
Quarry House Tavern: 8401 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring, MD; www.quarryhousetavern.com // @quarryhousetavern
Rooster & Owl: 2436 14th St. NW, DC; www.roosterowl.com // @roosterandowl
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